Women in Addiction Treatment: 6 Misconceptions

A look at gender-based assumptions in the world of addiction treatment….that are wrong!

minute read

The Equal Opportunity Illness?

Addiction is sometimes known as an equal opportunities illness, cutting across age, socio economic position, gender and race, though much empirical evidence to connects both substance and process addictions to pre-existing risk factors and contextual issues.

That is not to say that the experience of addiction is the same across the board and circumstances ad identity can certainly have an impact on how you experience addiction and recovery. Much treatment is based on this construction of the male experience of addiction – to remember that although something might defined as non-gender specific it is often actually male. In addition to this, most of the policy makers and academics writing on the subject of addiction are still often men, as are the directors of many treatment facilities, thus

A woman’s approach is not reflected in the administration, structure, policy and funding delivery policy within the treatment field.

Here are some of the more common misconceptions about addiction, its treatment related to gender. We invite you to read the facts, and then leave your comments at the end. Please let us know what you think!

1. Men are more addiction prone than women.

At one time this did appear to be the case, but the gender gap is closing. Boys/men are more likely to pick up drugs earlier in life but once introduced, both men and women are equally likely to go on to develop an addiction/continue using. Perhaps due to changing social codes, women have become one of the fastest growing populations of drug users.
Negative-reinforcement theories hypothesize that a person may have a vulnerability to addiction should sufficient levels of stress or similar unpleasant feelings be produced, the person then learns that a substance or process can relieve these negative emotions.

Bio psychosocial theories posit that a combination of personal and social factors increase the likelihood of behavioral issues like problem gambling and other process addictions. Those who abuse substances (particularly opiates or cocaine) are four to ten times more likely than the general population to have a gambling problem.
There is also a well-documented link between social deprivation and social and economic marginalization with a whole host of negative conditions including addictions.

2. Addiction progresses in the same way for women and men.

Studies show that women get addicted to drugs, specifically for opioids, cannabis, and alcohol, faster than do men and experience an accelerated progression from the initiation of substance use to the onset of dependency. So despite having used less of a substance for a shorter period of time women often resent in treatment with more medical, behavioral and psychological difficulties than men.

3. Men and women get addicted for the same reasons.

Emotional, mental and spiritual distress appears to be a motivator for addiction across the board. Women are twice as likely to report suffering from anxiety and depression as men, it is debatable whether this is due to increased frequency of presentation as men are at much higher risk of suicide. Stress is known to trigger substance abuse among both men and women, but research shows women may be more disposed to the harmful effects of stress and addiction than men

Experience of trauma can often be a trigger for drug abuse, this leaves women at much greater risk of addiction as they are by far the more likely victims of sexual and physical abuse. A history of violent trauma is more common among women with drug addiction, placing them at high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. Women are more likely to be the victims of all forms of abuse as children (and as adults) and have had more exposure to incest, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

It is debatable whether or not hormonal differences may play a part in addiction – A recent study found that estrogen can increase the possibility that females will start and continue using cocaine finding abstaining from the drug harder than it was for men. Another study found that menstrual cycle-dependent hormonal fluctuations can impact drug cravings in females.

Women also face unique social pressures and influences. The marketing of alcohol to women and the myriad ‘wine for mothers’ mentality of social media have likely contributed to addiction problems by removing the stigma attached to drinking while parenting, normalizing drinking as a coping mechanism and making it trendy an funny. Certainly there are shifting gender norms related to drinking. Drinking is celebrated on social media with memes and photos of cocktails as a way to cope with the stress of motherhood. This can lull women whose drinking is becoming a problem into a false sense of security. Though it is fairly common practice, being drunk while in charge of young children is illegal because it is dangerous.

4. The stigma of addiction affects men and women equally.

Though gender norms in relation to getting intoxicated are shifting, the stigma attached to addiction whilst simultaneously being the primary care giver for children, may be keeping women from getting the help they need. Being intoxicated is something that is currently culturally endorsed as a rite of passage for men and can therefore be positioned as a masculine behavior, it is seen an acceptable behavior, way of relaxing and bonding but for women there is a tendency to view drinking and drug taking as a failure to uphold the gender norms. There is stigma attached to being a drunk or otherwise intoxicated woman much of this attached to perceptions around sexual activity and promiscuity.
As the primary caretaker of young children, mothers are often reluctant to seek help before it is too late as they are afraid that the consequences of doing so might be that the children are removed from their care. One study showed that 25 percent of pregnant women with an opioid addiction were untreated, researchers cited stigma as a significant part of the barrier to them receiving help.

5. Women receive more help than men.

Research shows that women are less likely to receive adequate substance abuse treatment or to seek the specialized care they need. This may be due to gender specific barriers to treatment – including family responsibilities, financial limitations, transportation issues, and stigma. Addressing issues of trauma related to abuse is very important to recovery for women – though such issues may be too painful to address in primary treatment. Some women may feel more comfortable in women only rehab centers.

6. Men and women relapse at similar rates and for similar reasons.

Women who receive substance abuse treatment fare well in comparison to men, in that they relapse less often than men, perhaps because they’re more willing to ask for help and utilize talking therapy for emotional support.  Following the initial, crucial detox period, addiction treatment seeks to provide the time to actively listen to the client’s narrative and help to provide tools and a community in which the client can learn new tools with which to build an effective and productive fulfilling life with greater peace of mind and more satisfying relationships. A collective, communal group can support women…and should be available to all who need it.

About the author
Jason Shiers, Dip Psych, MBACP is a Transactional Analysis Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, and Head of Digital for addictionhelper.com and ukat.co.uk. Jason has been helping people with all types of addictions for 23 years. He practices holistically calling on various modalities including, psychotherapy, 12 steps, mindfulness, energy and meditation to help people empower themselves to make positive change in their lives.
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